Veneration of the Victory-Tree: A Meditation on the “Dream of the Rood”

The cross of Christ intersects our lives and transforms us at the place we most need Jesus. So, in reflecting upon the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem “Dream of the Rood,” I am not surprised that a medieval and martial people would understand the cross in terms of military conquest; only then, for the self-sacrificial love of Christ and the cross itself to triumph over violence.[1] For in the mystery of the cross, Jesus sacrifices himself for the life of the world. The cross, hitherto, an object of shame and humiliation becomes an object of devotion and faithfulness to the way of Jesus. And the cross symbolizes and represents Christian love: a self-sacrificial love that extends to enemies as well as neighbors. Christians venerate the cross to draw near to the gift of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and especially during Passiontide, we contemplate the salvation wrought by the work of Christ on the cross. Thus, I invite you to reflect on the “Dream of the Rood” this Holy Week, to venerate the “victory-tree,” on which Christ offered his life for ours, and to meditate upon the great salvation we have in Jesus.

The “Dream of the Rood” describes the poet’s dream wherein he encounters the true cross upon which Christ died. In this dream the cross speaks giving a firsthand account of the crucifixion. The poem can be divided into three sections: it begins by describing the poet’s vision of the exalted cross, then the cross speaks recalling Jesus’s crucifixion from its point of view, and finally the poem concludes in a prayer offered by the poet extolling the glory and wonder of the Christ’s death. In this way, the poet invites us to a profound veneration of the holy cross and contemplation of the paschal mystery.

The poet begins by describing his dream as an encounter of the exalted cross. He says, “It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree raised on high, wound round with light, the brightest of beams.” The exalted cross appears as the cross in glory, which is the cross seen from the vantage of God’s victory over sin, death, and evil. When we behold the cross beyond the warped perversion of sin or the tarnish of death, then we like the poet behold the completed work of Christ and God’s presence revealed within all things. Thus, the poet declares, “that was no felon’s gallows.” The exalted cross reflects the glory of God from the place of uttermost despair, the place in which mankind kills the Son of God who became as we are to save us. So, the poet first responds to the sight of the exalted cross by becoming keenly aware of his own sin:

            Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I was stained by sins,

            wounded with guilt; I saw the tree of glory

            honored in garments, shining with joys,

            bedecked with gold; gems had

            covered worthily the Creator’s tree.

            And yet beneath that gold I began to see

            an ancient wretched struggle, when it first began

            to bleed on the right side. I was all beset with sorrows,

            fearful for that fair vision; I saw that eager beacon

            change garments and colors—now it was drenched,

            stained with blood, now bedecked with treasure.

 Indeed, confronted by the cross of glory we should all examine ourselves and confess by my own hand and for me my savior died. Yet, the exalted cross also remains forever the cross of Christ’s cosmic victory over the Enemy, the principalities and powers of darkness, and evil. To encounter the cross means simultaneously to gaze upon the glory of God and the suffering of Christ. The cross joins desolation and the consolation of God. And in the exaltation of cross, we witness the triumph of love over violence.

Then, the poem continues in a new voice, for the cross addresses the poet recalling its participation in Christ’s victory. The cross speaks first of its abuse as the instrument of executing criminals, lamenting, “Strong enemies seized me there, made me their spectacle, made me bear their criminals.” But in Christ’s crucifixion, the cross becomes something more than an instrument of death; for in Christ’s death God redeems all, even the cross. The cross transcends the use put to it by sinful mankind becoming God’s instrument of grace. The cross tells of cooperating with God’s saving purposes:

            …Then I saw the Lord of mankind

            hasten eagerly, when he wanted to ascend upon me.

            I did not dare to break or bow down

            against the Lord’s word, when I saw

            the ends of the earth tremble. Easily I might

            have felled all those enemies, and yet I stood fast.

            Then the young hero made ready—that was God almighty—

            strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,

            brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.

            I trembled when he embraced me, but I dared not bow to the ground,

            or gall to the earth’s corners—I had to stand fast.

            I was reared as a cross: I raised up the mighty King,

            the Lord of heaven; I dared not lie down.

The cross reveals that God in his wisdom does not save us without us.[2]  God’s plan of salvation includes the cooperation of creation. God saves us by the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cooperation with divine grace bearing God into the world as Jesus. God saves us by the cooperation of human nature and divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ. In the poet’s dream, God saves us by the cross’s cooperation with Christ for the salvation of the world. According to his wisdom, God saves us by drawing us into his own divine life and purpose for all things.

Then, the poem continues while the cross continues to speak describing Christ’s death, burial, and victory, which has caused some to question why the cross should speak so much, if at all. A conscious and intelligent cross might be the fruit of poetic imagination, or as some scholars suggest, the vestiges of a pagan and animistic past.[3] On the contrary, I consider the notion of a conscious relic guiding the Christian soul into deeper meditation of the mysteries of God a profoundly Christian idea. After all, St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”[4] In some way, the cosmos as God’s creature awaits the fulfillment of God’s creative purposes, when mankind will be revealed fully as the “children of God.” The cosmos, then, awaits the full manifestation of God’s work already accomplished on the cross. Creation’s conscious achievement of its end is realized not in some historical or primordial beginning, nor in the accumulation of days and years, nor by marking progress in terms of values or evolutionary biology, but in Jesus’s incarnation come to its fulness on the cross. Creation, after all, exists by God’s pleasure sprung from the fecundity of God’s love and formed according to God’s wisdom. Thus, I am not surprised that modern scientist endeavor to solve the hard problem of consciousness—whence consciousness—to no avail, especially when the presupposition is that matter produces consciousness. Regardless of how complex the chemical, biological, and physical systems of matter present themselves, matter does not produce consciousness much less intelligence. No, it seems more likely, and infinitely more satisfying, that God according to his love and wisdom, identical to the divine mind, creates all that is and grants creation a life of its own imbued with some sort of consciousness proportional to its being and its being loved, which can respond to God its creator and lover. Indeed, all that exists does so because God loves it, and the love of God ultimately revealed by Christ on the cross should not be considered frivolous. Therefore, we do well to learn from the poet that holy relics, the cross, and even the cosmos may serve as guides into the divine mystery of God’s love.

Finally, the poet concludes in prayer that he too might take up the cross and find himself in the glorious presence of God with his saints. After encountering the cross, recollecting his thoughts, the poet said:

            … My spirit longed to start

            on the journey forth; it felt

            so much of longing. It is now my life’s hope

            that I might seek the tree of victory

            alone, more often than all men

            and honor it well. I wish for that

            with all my heart, and my hope of protection is

            fixed on the cross. …

The cross marks the boundaries and defines the lines that chart the Christian life. The poet having received the vision of the true cross can do nothing else but take up his own cross and follow Jesus. Doubtless, suffering will mark the journey, even as Christ suffered, but when we undergo the passion of this life with faith and hope, then love will be our guide. Love will remain as we meet our end, for as the poet says, this life is but “loaned” to us and not our own. We ought then to be both as careful and careless with our lives as Jesus was with his. With great care we tend to our lives that we might grow into likeness of Christ; we offer our lives joined to Christ’s life as a gift to God. But was not our Lord, also, quite careless with his life abandoning it to death for our sake? So too we must not value our lives more than we love God or our neighbor. Only, then, can we know how to love ourselves. Furthermore, when we take up our journey after Christ’s own, we can be sure of its success:

            The Son was successful in that journey,

            mighty and victorious, when he came with a multitude,

            a great host of souls, into God’s kingdom,

            the one Ruler almighty, the angels rejoicing

            and all the saints already in heaven

            dwelling in glory, when almighty God,

            their Ruler, returned to his rightful home.

Not even death impeded Christ’s journey of incarnation, death, descent into the grave, victory, resurrection, and ascension. Death itself became God’s captive, made to serve God’s purposes, and made to usher God’s beloved into glory.

Therefore, as the poet says, when we venerate the holy cross, we venerate the “victory-tree.” Jesus by the grace of God invites us to contemplate the vastness of God’s blessing and love for us. The holiness of the cross is God’s holiness, which is the unwillingness of Christ to succumb to the temptation of establishing his life in this world. His life remained hidden with God. Consequently, he willingly took up the cross that it might raise him up as the King of Glory. The glory of God bore the woundedness of sinful mankind while he himself knew no sin. The wounded cross reveals the cross of glory, and the cross of glory heals our woundedness. Mankind in league with the Evil One contrived the cross as an instrument of terror and the humiliation of God, but God is not mocked. God redeemed the cross itself to preach his victory. And his victory becomes our victory, when we follow Christ, share in his love, and glory in his cross.

This article and others about Christian Spirituality and Acetic Theology by Fr. Jonathan Totty can be found at which is dedicated to Christian pastoral and spiritual writing to foster a love of God and authentic subjectivity.

[1] “The Dream of the Rood” is anonymous and can be read in full online at The version quoted here is translated by Roy M. Liuzza.

[2] “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” S. Augustine, in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1847.

[3] Richard North, Heathen God’s in Old English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 247.

[4] Romans 8:19

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Author: Jonathan Totty

Jonathan Totty is a minister, a student, and a scholar. Jonathan is currently completing his Master of Arts in Theology at Lincoln Christian University. His academic interests are in systematic and historical theology. Jonathan is currently researching the doctrine of deification in the grace theology of Thomas Aquinas, and this research is planned to culminate in a Master’s thesis. Other interests of Jonathan include folk music and the history of folk music, gardening, and peripatetic philosophizing.

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